Medieval and Renaissance Europe

The narratives of traditional political history written by historians from the north and west of Europe confidently set the boundaries of the beginning of the medieval period at the fall of Rome in 476 C.E. and ended the period of the Renaissance either in 1492, with Christopher Columbus's voyage

Children appear, throwing snowballs, in the margins of a fifteenth-century illustrated manuscript, "The Hours of Adelaide of Savoy." .

to the Americas, or in 1527 with another sack of Rome, this time by the troops of Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. At both extremes, a narrow geographic focus also made the precision of these dates seem more convincing than it really is. At the beginning of the period, the focus on the north and west of Christendom, where medieval civilization eventually flourished about 1000 C.E., for the most part led historians to neglect the geography of the Roman Empire itself, wrapped as it was around the Mediterranean Sea. Thus the continuing vitality of the Byzantine Empire, so Roman that its inhabitants styled themselves Romanoi, never gained as much attention as it deserved. Political and military history also exaggerated the cultural conflict between ISLAM and the Christian West, even as Islamic civilization appropriated the fruits of Greek science and philosophy and retransmitted them to the Latin West toward the end of the eleventh century.

At the other chronological extreme, the sack of Rome appeared to mark the end of the independence of Renaissance Italian city-states, even though the struggle between the Papacy and secular powers throughout the High and late Middle Ages made the entire Italian peninsula so vulnerable to invasion and constant warfare that political independence failed to have much meaning. As Renaissance humanism came to be seen as the center of the movement known as the Renaissance, the geographical boundaries of Renaissance culture came to be understood as extending across the Alps into France, Germany, and England, as well as to Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, and Spain. The Renaissance is now considered to end at about 1600, with some literary historians willing to extend the chronological boundary as late as the 1640s to encompass the English poet John Milton (1608–1674) and the English Civil War (1642–1648).

Periodization of the History of Childhood

For the purposes of the history of childhood, the more important debates concerning chronological definitions have centered around what distinction, if any, can appropriately be made between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The American historian Charles Homer Haskins, in The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927), sought to claim for the twelfth century the cultural achievements traditionally attributed to the Renaissance: individualism, love for classical antiquity, and the origins of science. In the 1970s, this attack on the originality of the Italian Renaissance was flanked by an attack from feminists, led by Joan Kelly-Gadol's article "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" (1977), and from social and economic historians, who noted that daily lives as experienced in the premodern economy and society remained established in identifiable cyclical patterns that stayed virtually unchanged from the urban revival of the eleventh century until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century.

Such attempts to diminish the status of the Italian Renaissance as an important period for the fashioning of the modern age, though exaggerated, certainly had the beneficial effect of forcing Renaissance scholars to define more carefully what was distinctive about this period. What has resulted is a much more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between medieval and Renaissance learning, a relationship that involved a shift in emphasis from the scientific disciplines of the seven liberal arts (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) to the humanistic disciplines (grammar, rhetoric, and logic). In particular, the content of humanistic instruction placed an emphasis on the skills and subjects required for active participation in urban politics and society: history, poetry, and moral philosophy.

Between the works of Haskins and Kelly-Gadol appeared PHILIPPE ARIÈS's monumental Centuries of Childhood (1962). Ariès accepted the traditional boundaries between Middle Ages and Renaissance, but argued that the Renaissance ushered in a new attention to children and their education, an attention that curtailed the freedom of children themselves. Using examples from medieval paintings that he saw on weekends as part of his itinerant government job, Ariès argued that the Middle Ages had no separate conception of childhood: that children were depicted as little adults. As in art, so in life, Ariès believed: children were expected to assume adult roles quite precociously, and little or no attention was paid to the special needs of children until the educational revolution of humanism in sixteenth-century France began to regiment and DISCIPLINE the moral lives of children. Indeed, high INFANT MORTALITY, in Ariès's view, blunted any real parental affection when emotional investment in children came at such a high personal cost. Although that view is no longer prevalent among historians, much of the history of childhood in the Middle Ages and Renaissance is still being written as though Ariès's very provocative ideas still frame the entire debate.

Defining the Stages of Childhood

The chronological boundaries and terms for the stages of children's lives in the European past were quite different from those that prevail in the early twenty-first century. In the early seventh century the writer Isidore of Seville divided childhood into two equal periods of seven years each, a basic division and terminology that legal sources largely repeated. The first seven years was defined by the child's inability to speak, with speak meaning, in this case, the child's ability to express thought with grammatical correctness. This expressivity marked the beginning of the age of reason around the age of seven. Most importantly, it marked the age at which schooling began, just as the age of fourteen marked the end of formal schooling and the beginning of ADOLESCENCE, a period that formally ended at the age of twenty-eight. At fourteen a child formally entered the adult world and could contract matrimonial obligations. Criminal culpability began somewhere in the middle of this period of pueritia, or childhood, which was marked by the increasing ability to distinguish right from wrong. Although the exact age at which this was considered to occur juridically varied from one set of town statutes to another, in general the law prescribed half the adult penalty for crimes committed by children between the ages of ten and fourteen, with the full adult penalties applying once the child reached fourteen years of age. The death penalty for children under fourteen was rare, but not unknown. This aside, however, the actual use of these definitions and terms for various stages of childhood varied by writer, by location, and by period.

Sources of Evidence

Ariès's use of evidence from art history underscores a fundamental problem faced by all historians of medieval childhood: a lack of sources, or at least a lack of the traditional sources such as family and personal diaries. Family and personal diaries begin to emerge in the fourteenth century, especially in Italy, and some historians have seen in the relative lack of reference in such works to the lives and upbringing of children a lack of interest in children as individuals even in the early Renaissance. More recently, however, it has become clear that even for the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, these sources are not personal or family diaries in the modern sense, but family account books that chronicle the life of the family as an economic unit and as a claim to political office and high social status.

Thus for the entire period of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe, historians have relied on inference from archeological evidence, literary evidence, and evidence from institutions such as monasteries and hospitals, plus a few autobiographical accounts, in order to reconstruct the realities of medieval and Renaissance childhood. If describing "normal" childhood in a stable family setting is the historian's goal, the set of sources available produces very frustrating results, because historians come across children in court documents, ORPHANAGE records, and literary accounts of ABANDONMENT, so that children in the context of household and family play a less significant role in the evidence than they might have in reality. Even sermons and other literature from the Church fathers refer to children in the Biblical context–the abandonment of Moses and the Slaughter of the Innocents are favorite themes, as are the stories of miracles involving the healing of sick children. Similarly, medieval preaching about children, as well as images in late medieval art, dwelt on the miraculous intervention of saints to prevent children from accidental injury or death.

Continuities in Medieval and Renaissance Childhood

Differences in geography and time aside, certain common features of medieval and Renaissance childhood provide a sense of continuity across the premodern era, stretching from antiquity to the nineteenth century. According to prevailing beliefs, conceiving a child required both the right timing and the right setting in order to produce the desired result. In this, the imagination of the mother, or the visual images with which the couple was surrounded, played an important role in determining the physical characteristics as well as the character of the child. Similarly, food ingested by the mother, according to popular and medical belief, influenced the outcome of the child. During the Renaissance, deschi da parto, or birth trays, as well as various ceramics presented as gifts to the child's parents, repeated heroic themes as well as other messages meant to influence the upbringing by parents and mental absorption by the child.

For the period after the child's birth, virtually all authorities recommended maternal breast-feeding. Those same authorities conceded the infrequency of maternal breast-feeding by emphasizing the importance of choosing a wet nurse whose character would be transmitted through breast milk to the child. Following Ariès, some historians have argued that WET-NURSING was a form of emotional distancing from the cruel realities of high infant mortality. More recently, however, issues of family strategy have become more prominent in the historical literature, suggesting that because breast-feeding inhibited fertility, mothers sent children out to wet-nurse in order to reduce the amount of time between pregnancies and to maximize a woman's potential for childbearing.

In Mediterranean societies in particular, family strategies also revolved around male preference, so that wet nurses were somewhat more likely to neglect female infants than male infants. The polyptychs, or censuses, of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, an abbey near Paris, in the Carolingian era (768–814) show more males than females, with the difference in gender ratios most pronounced for the smallest landholdings. During the Renaissance, this disparity in treatment by gender is evident in the mortality records of FOUNDLING hospitals, a disparity that began to disappear only in the eighteenth century. Medical anthropologists have argued that male preference is a consistent feature of environmentally stressed societies, in which parents pay more attention to male children precisely because of their greater biological vulnerability during the first year of life.

Infanticide, Abandonment, Institutions

High infant mortality, infanticide, and abandonment also represented continuities in the history of childhood during this period, although historians sharply disagree about how widespread the latter two practices were. Infant mortality in premodern societies seems to have ranged from approximately 17 percent among elites in the best of economic conditions to 50 percent among the poor and in charitable institutions–still considerably less than the infant mortality rates of 80 to 90 percent common in foundling hospitals in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. In precarious economic circumstances, and during epidemics, both infant and child mortality reached appallingly high levels.

Infanticide and abandonment were clearly related to one another, not in the sense that they were necessarily equivalent, but in the sense that parents justified (and sometimes rationalized) abandonment as the only humane alternative to starvation. As early as the mid-fourth century, orphanages and foundling hospitals were established in the Byzantine Empire, deliberately imitating Roman law. Indeed, Roman law established in Byzantium an elaborate system of guardianship for vulnerable children, in which abandonment to an institution was the last resort after networks of kinship and clients had been exhausted. Later Byzantine emperors and ecclesiastical patriarchs established and supported foundling hospitals for the abandoned children of prostitutes, although these institutions were specifically designated as orphanages at their inception. A number of Byzantine orphanages became renowned for their musical training, a tradition either reinvented or rediscovered in Renaissance Italian foundling homes as well.

In this respect, early medieval Byzantium, a relatively urbanized society compared to the more rural north and west of Europe, had a greater variety of alternatives and institutions for abandoned children. The north and west of Europe, at least from about 500 to 1000 C.E., was prey to invasion, famine, and widespread rural poverty. For an age in which both adults and children were at risk, there is nonetheless archeological evidence that parents struggled to keep alive even their sickly and deformed children, crafting makeshift clay feeding bottles for children unable to take the breast. Nor did high infant mortality necessarily weaken the bond between parents and infants. In fourteenth-century France, records from the Inquisition suggest the agony of a mother who could not bear to abandon her infant to join the heretical Cathar movement, and who ultimately had to order that the child be taken out of the room.

The closest analogue in early medieval western Europe to orphanages and foundling hospitals was oblation, the practice of giving children, especially male children, over to the monastic life. Although genuine religious motivations were at the heart of this practice, it is also quite clear that for some parents, having an older child reared and educated in the monastic setting arose from considerations of economic necessity and family strategy as well. As was true for charitable institutions in the later Middle Ages, monasteries adopted the terminology of family to construct a form of fictive kinship and familial closeness in monasteries and convents as well.

As medieval society in the Latin West became more urbanized in the eleventh century, structures and forms of abandonment changed as well. Although western Europe would not develop foundling homes until the early fifteenth century, large general hospitals as well as more specialized institutions took in orphans and foundlings in addition to their other patients and pilgrims. A series of frescoes in the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, Italy, depicts the various forms of assistance that this large general hospital provided for abandoned children.

Just as was true for medieval convents and monasteries, the vocabulary and organization of hospitals for children sought to replicate what families normally did. Thus both general and specialized hospitals in the Middle Ages and Renaissance sent infants out to wet nurses both in city and countryside. In late medieval Italy, for example, entire towns in remote mountainous areas developed microeconomies of wet-nursing. As families did, these hospitals sent boys out to be schooled and apprenticed to a trade. Girls were taught to weave and sew, tended to remain inmates of these hospitals much longer, and often left the hospital with a dowry intended for the convent or for marriage. Over the course of the sixteenth century, many institutions required girls to keep track of their production of cloth, for which their dowries received partial credit, with the remainder going to underwrite the institution's expenses. Both boys and girls might be available for informal adoptions that usually involved working as servants for the families in which they were placed.

Affection and Exploitation

The high levels of infant and child mortality, as well as high levels of abandonment, have led some historians (often, in the Ariès tradition) to argue that the emotional lives of children were highly restricted at best and that parents lacked affection for children. Most historians of childhood would now agree that medieval and Renaissance parents displayed the same range of emotion toward children that one finds in the present: CHILD ABUSE and exploitation then, as now, were present but not necessarily representative. Rituals of BAPTISM and godparenthood, as Louis Haas showed in The Renaissance Man and His Children (1998), welcomed the infant into both the immediate family and into larger networks of kin, neighborhood, and community. Humanist pedagogy during the Renaissance, first in Italy and then in the north, emphasized the role of families as ministates in which children trained for adult roles in public life. Consequently, the training of children became the basis for the revival of classical visions of discipline and the early modern state both in the Catholic and PROTESTANT REFORMATIONS.

Yet the boundaries concerning appropriate social and sexual behavior were certainly drawn differently from those of contemporary times. In Renaissance Florence, for example, as shown in Michael Rocke's Forbidden Friendships (1996), the activities of the Officials of the Night revealed an extremely widespread network of same-sex encounters between older men and younger boys–encounters that often reflected nonsexual networks of patronage, clientage, and assistance. Sexual encounters between adult men and teenaged boys were tolerated with greater latitude than encounters between two adult males. It was just such issues that Catholic and Protestant reformers sought to address by melding religious and political discipline. Precisely at this point in the middle of the sixteenth century one may begin to discern modern outlines of childhood.

In continuing the educational innovations of the Renaissance, the Catholic and Protestant Reformations did not address economic exploitation, which continued to be a matter of survival for rural families; consequently, children within the family took on important economic roles. Barbara A. Hanawalt's examination of coroners' records from medieval England, in both The Ties That Bound (1986) and Growing Upin Medieval London (1993), showed high rates of accidental death, especially by drowning and by falling into fires. Similar dangers awaited laboring children and apprentices in medieval London. Indeed, to some extent, the new charitable initiatives of early modern Europe fostered the economic exploitation of institutionalized children as de facto wards of the early modern state. Even regular APPRENTICESHIPS often subjected young adolescents not only to hard work but also to very strict discipline.

The deaths of children in this period, however, were never taken lightly. Although Italian Renaissance diaries often record the deaths of children rather laconically, this has more to do with the function of diaries as accounts of family finances and family prestige, than with any lack of affection for children. Even in the case of tax records, in which during certain times large numbers of female children appear to have gone missing, the gaps are accounted for by the deliberate falsification of these records by taxpayers in order to make their daughters appear younger and therefore more marriageable. Personal correspondence from the period shows that parents placed a high value on the lives of their children and felt an extreme sense of loss for them when EPIDEMICS and other calamities took their lives. Moralists instructed parents to bring up and educate children according to the children's individual characteristics and abilities.

If in many respects medieval and Renaissance childhoods resemble those of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the cultural context of medieval and Renaissance childhood was so strikingly different that the superficial similarities are often misleading. What appears initially as a lack of attention to children has more to do with the nature of the sources, as well as with the integration of children at a very young age into functioning communities of honor, SEXUALITY, extended family, neighborhood, and work. The economic functioning of family life and child rearing did not completely submerge affection. In the case of inheritance practices, rigid rules concerning INHERITANCE often worked to the long-term protection and advantage of children. At the same time individual families often had to tread a very fine line when bonds of affection and the family's economic, social, and political survival pulled in opposite directions.

See also: Early Modern Europe; Enlightenment, The.


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